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Evening pitchmen

Gene Halderson of the Willmar team takes aim at the pin on Thursday night at Rice Park. Halderson is from Madison but works at Bergh Fabrication in Willmar. <b>(Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)</b>1 / 3
Larry Clark of Willmar pitches while Tom Johnson of Lake Lillian checks the scoring. Gene Halderson, left, of Willmar and Steve Flann of Lake Lillian are in the next pit. <b>(Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)</b>2 / 3
Gene Halderson, left, and Tom Thompson work up the Rice Park clay horseshoe pits prior to the match with Lake Lillian. <b>(Tribune photo by Rand Middleton)</b>3 / 3

The old men, and a few at middle age, gather on Thursday evenings at parks in Clara City, Atwater, Lake Lillian and Willmar.

Someone, appointed in advance, brings a light lunch.

They play an ancient game that is competitive and relaxing at the same time.

Every pitch matters in horseshoes.

The men throw four games, 40 shoes per game.

These are the four-player teams of the West Central Horseshoe League. Once there were eight-man teams; Montevideo, Hutchinson and Miller's Corner, south of Benson, were also on the circuit.

It's a pastime tailor-made for farmers who got their daily workout in the field. In the evening and weekends at the lake, you could "throw and walk" with plenty of time for socializing.

Not that these pitchmen aren't athletic. The Flanns of Lake Lillian were legendary fast-pitch softball players. Howard Flann, 86, no longer competes, but Myron, 83, still plays in the city league on Wednesday nights in a town where the nightspot is the Horseshoe Bar.

Howard's son, Steve, captains the Lake Lillian squad. A pitcher on the Willmar team tells me no one throws a nicer or a more accurate 1¼-spin shoe than Steve Flann.

"It's a very relaxed type of sport," said Steve. "Even when you're tired, it's something that you can enjoy on a hot evening."

The Thursday Night League uses a handicapped scoring system, similar to bowling. The average pitcher is thus a threat.

Men over 70 years old, and women, move up 10 feet to the 30-foot line to throw.

Stan Barney throws for Clara City, which hosted Atwater on Thursday, while Willmar entertained Lake Lillian at Rice Park. Barney is 68 years old and has played for 16 years on the team he helped start. He will go to regional tournaments "three or four times" a summer and to the national tournament, this year in Springfield, Ill.

"In league you throw 160 shoes a night, 350 at a tournament and 600 at the world or national tournament, which is over three days," said Barney.

The Clara City courts are in the middle of town, by the old baseball stadium.

"I just think it's a lot of fun and inexpensive," said Barney.

Horseshoes seems poised to explode -- the next recreation to catch on with the graying baby-boomers.

They've gone through the slow-pitch years, perhaps tried golf and fishing and now they are looking for a way to wind it down.

As anyone who has picked up the steel shoe, throwing ringers isn't easy. It's a game of skill.

Barney throws a "three-quarter" spin. Others will use a flip, 1¼, 1¾ spin or even a 2¼, like Alden Van Der Pol of Lake Lillian. Then there is the rare ¾ reverse thrown by Sherman Mankel of the Willmar quartet.

Barney said the world's best will pitch 95 percent ringers. It will take an 88 percent average to compete in the top ranks.

Bill Benson, retired physics teacher at Ridgewater College, recalls throwing continuously since 1968. He and his son, John, a chemistry teacher at the college, both compete for Willmar.

"We need PR," cracked Bill with a chuckle when asked why horseshoes remains so low profile.

Atwater icon Ole Hovey, 80, is sidelined with a bum shoulder but doesn't mention retirement.

"It helps when you're 70 that you can move up those 10 feet," he said.

Jerry Osteraas, a 1954 Willmar graduate, didn't start playing until age 70.

"I went down to watch (the Lake Lillian City League)," said the lifetime downhill and cross-country skier, "and they said I had to play, and I've been playing ever since."

The Minnesota Gopher Horseshoe Pitching Association lists two dozen clubs, including one at Litchfield which hosted the annual Watercade Tournament last weekend.

Tom Thompson, 80, of Willmar finished runner-up in Class B.

"He's one of the best throwers in the league," said Bill Benson.

Rand Middleton
Tribune photographer/videographer. Began working in radio and at weekly newspaper in Munising, Michigan, in 1972. Started parttime at West Central Daily Tribune Sept. 1974. Fulltime news/sports beginning Feb. 1979. Married to Tribune news clerk Donna (Miller) Middleton, formerly of Kerkhoven. 2 grown children. 
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